The odds of someone in the United States, let alone on the East End, contracting the Ebola virus disease are slim—a one in 13.3 million chance, according to statistics compiled by NPR.
But that hasn’t stopped the state and Suffolk County health departments from taking precautionary measures to prepare for handling and treating the virus, should someone become infected.
Acting State Health Department Commissioner Howard Zucker has issued countless orders on Ebola specifications over the last few weeks as they pertain to personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfecting, transporting and handling specimens, and safely handling human remains. Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo designated Stony Brook University Hospital as the facility to treat potential Ebola patients on Long Island.
At the county level, officials have been holding training sessions for all emergency response personnel to ensure that agencies know how to don specialized suits and obtain and utilize certain equipment that would be needed to treat an Ebola patient. Grace Kelly-McGovern, public relations director for the Suffolk County Health Department, said the precautions are necessary because of how quickly the disease has spread elsewhere around the world.
“It’s what the Health Department does,” Ms. Kelly-McGovern said. “The specific focus on Ebola … is because there is an outbreak and there are health care workers” being exposed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola—which first surfaced in Africa in 1976—is an infection that can be fatal to humans. While it is not transmitted through casual contact, it can be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids of a patient with symptoms. Health care workers treating Ebola patients have the highest risk of contracting it, because patients who are ill become more infectious as the disease worsens. Symptoms of Ebola include fever, severe headache, muscle pain, diarrhea, vomiting, unexplained bleeding or bruising and fatigue, and they begin appearing anywhere from two to 21 days after exposure to the disease, according to the CDC.
To date, only one person, a male visitor from Liberia, has died from Ebola in the United States. Seven others, including nurses, doctors, missionary workers, aides and an NBC cameraman, have contracted the virus but quickly recovered. Currently, a doctor named Craig Spencer is being treated for Ebola at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan after returning from a trip to Guinea to work with Doctors Without Borders in treating people with the disease.
Here on the East End, Southampton Hospital and local ambulance companies are following the guidelines implemented by the county and state on how to handle an Ebola case. Southampton has created a three-person team consisting of Dr. Darin Wiggins, chair of emergency medicine, Dr. Fred Weinbaum, executive vice president for operations and chief medical officer, and Debbie Maile, director of infection prevention, to facilitate all of the training and drills.
At the hospital, posters are on display at all four entrances bearing warning signs in various languages that instruct patients to inform staff if they have fallen ill after traveling internationally. If they have, and they show symptoms of Ebola, Marsha Kenny, the hospital’s director of public affairs, said the individual will remain in a designated area of the hospital where he or she will not be exposed to people other than health care workers. The workers are learning how to put on personal protective equipment so that their skin is not exposed to any bodily fluids or needle-sticks when treating patients.
If an Ebola case is ever confirmed, Ms. Kenny said the patient will be transported to Stony Brook University Hospital by a Stony Brook carrier.
“We’re taking it very seriously since day one,” she said. “Staff has to be trained and drilled in the correct use of that [protective] equipment. Certainly, we’re in the very thick of it right now. Safety is the most important thing to us.”
Ambulance companies have been conducting similar training. Many local companies have been holding informational sessions for their volunteers on how to properly don and doff Tyvek suits glazed with a polyester coating, which cover every part of the body except the face. An EMT must put on a pair of rubber gloves before stepping into and zipping up the suit with the help of a fellow team member. Once it’s on, the EMT puts on another pair of rubber gloves, and the area where the glove ends is sealed with duct tape so that nothing can get inside the suit. Tape is also applied to the top of the zipper on the suit. EMTs complete the ensemble with N-95 respirators and glass shield head visors.
After the apparel is removed, it is immediately discarded in a biohazard bag.
“It’s always good to be prepared and have the equipment resources just in case. Just because right now it’s all about Ebola, doesn’t mean this gear can’t be used in other circumstances,” said Tim Hurley, chairman of the board of directors for the Southampton Volunteer Ambulance. “We will all be trained and prepared for it, and the hope is we don’t have any of that come into our district.”
Others agree with Mr. Hurley. Rick Fowler, chief of the Southampton Village Volunteer Ambulance, said that while he feels it’s important to prepare, obtaining the equipment cost his company about $2,000, something that wasn’t allocated in the budget. “We’ve got to prepare,” he said.
Christopher Fraser, 1st assistant Chief of the Hampton Bays Volunteer Ambulance, said his company is conducting its own in-house training. He too said the training will be beneficial for the handling of other viruses.
“It’s not going to be a prevalent thing,” Mr. Fraser said. “But it is something you can practice for other infectious diseases. [Ebola] won’t be an issue as long as there is active training and everyone is prepared.”